Can California Build Its Way Out of the Homelessness Crisis?

The homelessness problem in California is often presented as a simple math equation. If we have x number of people in the state and the number of housing units is lower than x, we will have people who are homeless. The solution to a supply problem, in other words, is more supply.

Not everyone agrees with this. On the left, tenant and anti-gentrification activists and scholars like Ananya Roy, whom I interviewed in an earlier edition of this newsletter, argue that simply building market-rate housing will do nothing to help poor citizens and the homeless. Instead, she says, the creation of even thousands of units of expensive apartments will benefit only the upper-middle-class professionals who can afford thousands of dollars in rent.

The simple, if somewhat brutal, logic of building more housing units also elides other problems, including access to transit and to mental health services that make it difficult just to throw people into empty apartments.

Michael Shellenberger, a candidate in the upcoming California governor’s race and the author of the book “San Fransicko,” also rejects the idea that housing supply is really the problem. Instead, he places much of the blame for the homelessness crisis on increased rates of drug use and mental health problems that, he argues, have been fueled by liberal policies and the welfare state. This, he says, incentivizes enterprising addicts to move to the state.

In the Bay Area, there are some groups that seem committed to splitting the difference between the easy math of market-rate housing and the concerns about how poor residents, in particular, might be affected by a city that builds quickly but also builds thoughtlessly. They look to mix renter protections and constructing and acquiring more affordable units while cutting away much of the considerable red tape and neighborhood resistance that makes it impossible to build anything in California’s densest cities.

These groups constitute an evolution of the YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) movement, which, in the past, was most prominently represented by free-market advocates like Ed Glaeser, who believe that simply building a lot of units at a high volume and rapid pace will eventually lead to cheaper prices for all. (If you’d like to read my interview with Glaeser, click here.)

To learn more about the new YIMBYs, I talked to Ned Resnikoff, a former policy manager of the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco, and the incoming policy director of the advocacy and policy group California YIMBY.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You recently made the move from working on homelessness policy to working for an organization that tries to advocate laws that permit dense housing near transit and reduce housing impact fees that make home building economically challenging. How are these two roles linked?

They’re connected because the homelessness crisis that we’re in right now is essentially an offshoot of the housing crisis. The primary thing that has been driving increases in homelessness not just in California but across the United States has been a real shortage of housing that is affordable to low-income and extremely low-income people. So there are all kinds of things that you can do for people who are currently unhoused, but if you actually want to end the homelessness crisis, you need to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. And the way to do that is by making sure that there’s abundant, affordable housing.

In January, I interviewed Sam Quinones, who places a lot of the blame for homelessness on meth and fentanyl. His ideas have picked up a lot of steam in California, especially with Michael Shellenberger. Shellenberger believes way too much emphasis has been placed on housing and not enough on the way people fall out of society and how liberal governments aid and abet that process.

Part of the reason we focus on housing so much is that if you actually want to help people manage their substance use or get sober, one of the best things you can do for them is provide them with housing. It is just so much harder to manage any of the other issues you might be facing in your life when you’re also sleeping in a tent and you don’t have a locked door that you can sleep behind. The stress of that is incredibly overwhelming.

There was a journal article written by Kelly Doran in which she and her co-authors made the point that causality runs both ways when it comes to homelessness and substance use. People who are exposed to those sorts of stressors are more likely to develop serious mental health issues or to develop a substance use issue, again because it’s just incredibly stressful to be homeless.

I will say, as a Bay Area resident who spends a lot of time talking to people about homelessness in California, that a lot of them agree with Shellenberger. There is a visceral reaction people have when they see someone living in an encampment having a mental health episode. Witnessing that naturally influences how people view the crisis. How do you deal with the fact that a lot of people might be predisposed to agree with Shellenberger?

I live in the Bay Area. I also am dismayed by the visible markers of homelessness that I see all over. I don’t think people’s visceral horror at this is at all illegitimate, and I don’t think their frustration is at all illegitimate.

I do think it’s important to note that the most visible forms of homelessness that we see don’t accurately reflect the experience of most people who are unhoused. So it’s important to keep two things in mind: One, people who are chronically homeless are a minority of people who at any given point are homeless. And people who are chronically homeless and have really severe substance use or mental health issues, to the extent that they represent the most visible experience of homelessness, those are a minority of a minority.

Most people who experience homelessness experience it as a sort of intermittent phase between different precarious housing situations or as a one-time thing. But it’s also the case that just kind of citing statistics to people isn’t really a great way to grapple with the homelessness crisis.

What do you think should be done about the minority of the minority that makes people particularly emotional on this issue?

Just sweeping an encampment, in addition to being kind of a punitive criminal justice approach to homelessness, is also an ineffective response if you’re actually looking to reduce the impacts of visible homelessness in a city, because you’re just going to be moving people around. The thing that actually works is to get people housed and to get people housed with access to wraparound and supportive services.

The research that’s been done on permanent supportive housing shows that it’s a really, really effective response for who we consider the hardest-to-treat people, who are also often the most visible members of the homeless population. There was a recent study in Santa Clara County. It was a randomized control trial, and the population they were looking at are exactly the people we’re talking about — people who are chronically homeless, have had multiple interactions with the criminal justice system, multiple interactions with emergency psychiatric services. And permanent supportive housing was able to keep 86 percent of them housed for the vast majority of the follow-up period. And these are people where, if giving them housing and intensive services works for this population, then it’ll work for virtually anyone.

One of my real interests in this space has been about how hyperlocal organizations like homeowners’ associations changed California. This is the political backbone of the state, and they’re pretty hostile toward your goals. Is there a way to change this reality without what would amount to a revolution?

I think that the result of all of the efforts of H.O.A.s, obviously, has been pretty perverse. But I think the way they have gone about it is extremely smart and is something that, to some degree, we should attempt to learn from. And I think, with H.O.A.s specifically, one of the real lessons there is about the power of membership-based groups of neighbors and having that ethic of neighborliness and how you build political power. And also trying to speak to people’s real concerns and make them feel a part of the community.

Let’s talk about building housing. There are a lot of steps that have to happen before you can get a shovel into the ground. How do you think about the possibility that while you may get laws passed, homeowners’ associations might just be able to block every specific project that gets proposed?

I think this is where we need to take another lesson from H.O.A.s and the slow growth movement. If you look at basically any successful social movement in the United States, they don’t really pick a lane, saying, “We’re just going to focus on this on the local level” or “We’re just going to focus on this on the state or federal level.” I think, in order to really enact major change, you need to have a good understanding of how those different lines of authority all interlock and where your points of leverage are at every potential level. So we absolutely need statewide policy reform. And that’s primarily what I’ll be working on in my new role. But that’s only going to count for so much if we aren’t also mobilizing people to come out and speak on behalf of specific projects in their neighborhoods and in their cities. You have to do both.

One thing I’ve noticed about your work is that you think on long-term horizons. What’s the path we are headed on regarding homelessness? What does California look like in 20 years without significant intervention?

I think that the trajectory we’re on, in addition to being horrific, at some point becomes politically unsustainable. If we can’t demonstrate a way to actually deal with mass homelessness in a humane and effective way, then we’re building the political constituency for inhumane, ineffective responses. And I think we’ve already started to see a little bit of that, where you have political candidates in the recall election talking about essentially just warehousing homeless people out in the middle of nowhere. I think the fact that we have people essentially openly talking about internment camps for homeless people is profoundly disturbing. And I just worry that the political momentum for that sort of response will only grow if we can’t actually address the problem in a reasonable manner.

Correction: In my Thursday newsletter, I misspelled the name of a South Vietnamese monk who immolated himself as a protest. He was Thich Quang Duc, not Thich Quang Durc.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”

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